Article written by Arushi Dahiya
The annual Critical Hope Lecture 2023 hosted by the Department of Global Development Studies, University of Toronto Scarborough, was delivered on Friday, March 17th, 2023, by Dr. Naila Kabeer, Professor of Gender and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Professor Kabeer is a world-renowned scholar, social economist, and leading voice in the field of gender and development. The title of Dr. Kabeer’s talk was “Building Collective Action on the Margins: Gender Perspectives from South Asia,” and her discussion focused on the intersectionality of gender, development, and social justice, highlighting the importance of empowering marginalized women in order to sustain democracy.
Dr. Kabeer is widely known as a “rebellious intellect,” someone with the intellectual stature that has transformed our understanding of development. She is a veritable example of someone who strives to lead by countering elite politics through bottom-up alternatives. Her research has been foundational in understanding women’s rights and conceptualizing economics as social provisioning. Her commitment to social justice is fueled by her own lived experience and her obligation to those with less privilege, and these experiences have manifested in her drive to pursue and promote the recognition of the role of marginal women in sustaining democracy. She emphasizes the significance of understanding that the human economy takes precedence in our world over the market economy.
The focal emphasis of her lecture surrounded the importance of context in understanding economics, recognizing the value of informal institutions, and fighting for economics that is concerned with women’s lives. Dr. Kabeer outlined the contextual framework for “Building Collective Action on the Margins: Gender Perspectives from South Asia” through recognizing the importance of empowerment, gender justice, and citizenship as a bridging concept. She sought to answer the question: In the face of oppression of patriarchy, which defines women as subordinate, what does empowerment mean? Women have historically and continually been oppressed by predetermined roles and Dr. Kabeer argued that institutional arrangements must be adoptable by everyone in public, and institutions can only be just if those that are poor and at the margins have the ability to respond in participation. Her research showed that self-help groups such as Pradhan, BRAC and the Gond Community, among others, located in Bangladesh, were able to empower communities of women by prioritizing material pathways of change, and believing in, and harnessing, the power of the collective in order to effect change.
Furthermore, her research also showed that only after going to these aforementioned self-help groups were women liberated to explore ways of escaping the domestic violence they experienced at home, or finding a way to sustain their livelihood. Dr. Kabeer highlighted themes like the power of the collective through the example of a local idiom which was “one stick can be broken but a bundle cannot” and how these groups would work together to demonstrate greater force. Furthermore, Dr. Kabeer touched on the significance of marriage in society in Bangladesh and the struggle for gender justice and how critical it is for these women to have space to decide what they embrace and abandon. She rejected the false dichotomy of liberal vs. communitarian values and called for protesting injustice as a way to improve culture. Towards the end, Dr. Kabeer emphasized that in the past, social customs determined what was right or wrong for women in the community but after these self-help groups began to establish themselves and help women in understanding their legal rights, women in Bangladesh have been able to gain greater agency in making their own choices.
In conclusion, Dr. Kabeer’s lecture emphasized the importance of understanding the intersectionality of gender, economics, and development. She highlighted the significance of institutional arrangements that are adoptable by everyone in public such as the various self-help groups she investigated at the time of her research. Her research highlights the power of the collective and the need for material pathways of change. Her talk left us all deeply inspired and brewing with questions that quipped up long after the lecture had elapsed. Ultimately, Dr. Kabeer’s work calls for gender justice and the empowerment of marginalized women as a crucial step in sustaining democracy. As a student of development studies, it was an honor to be in the presence of such a remarkable leader in feminist economics and development. We are all eagerly anticipating the release of her next publication set to release later this year, which narrates the story of her research in greater detail.
Arushi Dahiya (she/her) is in her 3rd year at the University of Toronto, where she is Specializing in Global Development Studies Co-op and Minoring in Political Science and Anthropology. She is currently assisting the team at the Knowledge Equity Lab in reporting and devising sustainability strategies.